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Police: No problems with coronavirus scofflaws

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Coronavirus press conference at the Anniston City Meeting Center Monday morning. Officials answered questions about the decision to not house coronavirus patients at the CDP facility in Anniston. Left to right: State Representative K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge and Anniston Police Chief Shane Denham. Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

Parking lots at Oxford Commons are nearly empty, baseball fields sit silent in springtime and there are no lights on in Jacksonville’s Java Jolt coffee shop — all in response to an order from a statewide board most Alabamians had never heard of before this month. 

Yet police in the Anniston area say they’ve had no need to arrest or fine anyone for defying the limits the state placed on public gatherings as COVID-19 spreads. 

“For the most part, everybody seems to be self-complying,” Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said Wednesday.

A week has passed since state officials issued sweeping orders banning public gatherings of more than 25 people and prohibiting sit-down service at restaurants and bars, among other restrictions. Gov. Kay Ivey was the first to announce those orders, but state documents make it clear that the legal authority for most of those restrictions emanates not from the governor’s office but from the little-discussed State Board of Health and a sister organization, the State Committee of Public Health.

The board is, in essence, the same board of doctors who run the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, a professional association for the state’s doctors. Section 22-2-14 of state law gives the board’s rules the force of law; people who disobey those rules can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $500 for each violation.

More than a century ago, proclamations from the board were relatively common. Past copies of The Anniston Star show the city of Anniston seeking a ruling from the State Board of health in 1905, when considering a quarantine that would block Montgomery residents from entering the city. The concern at the time was a yellow fever epidemic that had shut down New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast. “Quarantine hurts business” was one Star headline from that year. 

It’s unclear whether the board has used quarantine or similar powers in recent memory. Attempts to reach MASA for comment were unsuccessful, and a spokesman for the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, in an email, deferred questions about those powers to state health officials. 

Still, the orders seem to have gone into effect in Anniston and Oxford without any resistance. Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge said his officers had issued no fines and made no arrests in the wake of the orders, and have heard no reports of people gathering or doing business in defiance of the new rules. 

“We’re just hoping people will follow the correct guidance,” Partridge said. “The quicker we flatten the curve, the quicker we can get back to normal.”

The effect of the orders — and of broader coronavirus concerns — was clear in Oxford and Anniston this week. While grocery stores and big-box retailers remain open, with half-full parking lots, commerce at Oxford Commons had slowed to a crawl this week. Restaurants such as Panda Express and Panera Bread offered takeout only, while retailers Old Navy and Ross Dress for Less and Rack Room Shoes — not directly under any state orders — were closed, signs on their windows indicating coronavirus was the reason. 

Chief Denham said there’s been no need for police in the Model City to break up gatherings or close any bars for defying the orders. He said that’s not something most current police have experience doing.

“We are truly in uncharted territory,” he said. Denham said that if people did break COVID-19 rules, police would likely start by issuing warnings, then moving on to citations if a warning wasn’t enough.

“This is usually how we enforce the law anyway,” Denham said. “Most of the time, it’s just talking people into complying.”

It’s unclear whether there were struggles over enforcement of the rules in other parts of the state, but Mike Lewis, a spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said state officials had no reports of arrests being made or fines being levied against people who disobeyed the orders. 

“It is possible some action may have occurred, but we are unaware of it,” Lewis wrote in an email.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.